In his latest essay, entitled ‘La vraie vie’ (the ‘true’ life), the seventy-nine year old French philosopher Alain Badiou, briefly revisits Socratic philosophy for the benefit of young generations. Socrates was sentenced to death by a democratic jury which considered his teaching as too subversive and therefore a threat to the social, religious and political order of Athens. Plato’s mentor was accused of disrespect for the gods of the city and more significantly, of indoctrinating his students with his systematic questioning of all prevailing truths. The fact that, unlike his Sophists rivals, he refused to charge them for his time and expertise, made him even more suspicious to his openly declared accusers. Paradoxically, none of his students was actually invited to testify against their alleged ‘corrupting’ master and as I.F Stone pointed out in his remarkable ‘Trial of Socrates’ (1988), ‘Socrates was prosecuted for what he said, not for anything he did’.
Inspired by the Socratic and Platonic traditions, Badiou warns his young male and female readers against the pitfalls of a world which far from promising endless pleasures and material success, only paves the way to disillusion and unhappiness. In this respect, the prolific philosopher is prepared to ‘corrupt’ his readers if he is to free them from the shackles of prejudice and wake them up from their technological slumber. In a society which no longer offers stable, inspiring values, young men and women have become easy preys to equally life-denying alternatives: nihilism (or self-negation), radicalism (or self-sacrifice) and conformism (or self-denial). Abandoned to themselves, boys struggle to emulate the figure of the Father while girls, ‘sexualised’ from an early age, are pressurised to fit fashion stereotypes and have to perform better than their male peers if they are to achieve social status and economic independence. For Badiou, the ‘true’ life is elsewhere, in the slow exploration and construction of a real self, through the rediscovery of the value of love relationships and a disinterested political engagement driven exclusively by the common good.
Badiou’s lucid diagnosis of the limitations of our consumerist, technocratic society is strangely similar to Charles Taylor’s analysis of twenty five years ago if it wasn’t for the Frenchman’s conviction that a new, more humane form of communist society is the only solution to our present quandary. But wasn’t Plato a closet communist, after all?